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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Sunday in the Park with George
Theater Works
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Grease, Steel Magnolias, and Permanent Collection


Joshua Vern and Alanna Kalbfleisch
Photo by Wade Moran / Moran Imaging
Basing a musical on an artist about whom very little was known and centered on the fictitious people in one of his paintings seems like a strange idea for a show, yet Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George is a deeply moving and emotionally rich musical. It focuses on the struggles that artists encounter when creating art while also attempting to connect with the people in their lives. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and featuring one of Sondheim's most challenging scores, Sunday in the Park with George is receiving a sumptuous production at Theater Works with an exceptional cast and clear direction that get across the important themes and messages of the play.

Sondheim and Lapine based their show on impressionist painter Georges Seurat and his pointillist masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Since not much is known about Seurat's life, except that he died at a very young age before seeing any success, they created an almost entirely fictional account of his life and turned the most prominent figure in his famous painting into Dot, George's mistress and model. Dot deeply loves George but finds herself frustrated because he is more interested in completing the two-dimensional people in his paintings than spending time with her. The first act follows their relationship and the creation of Seurat's masterpiece in 1880s France, with many of the characters in the painting brought to life as people Seurat sketched on the Island of la Grande Jatte. Act two is set one hundred years later in Chicago where we find Seurat and Dot's daughter Marie and her grandson, an artist also named George, who finds himself in a similar dilemma as Seurat, unable to find a balance between his personal life and artistic demands.

The themes and messages in the play include the idea that the art of making art involves moments both happy and sad, that love and relationships can be both beneficial and a hindrance to the creative process, and that sometimes it takes images and people from the past in order to move on from the obstacles that get in your way and to help discover a way to connect to the present.

Director Phillip Fazio displays an abundance of dedication and passion in his abilities to effectively stage this challenging work that are on par with the succinct way that Joshua Vern portrays Seurat's commitment and hunger to his art. They both provide an order to the chaos, whether it be in Fazio's concise, clear and specific directorial choices, or Vern's ability to cut through the bickering, argumentative people who constantly surround his character with facial expressions and gestures that never fail to clarify exactly what he is thinking. The culmination of these two men's superb efforts is most impressive in the highlight of the musical, the act one ending where Seurat navigates all of the characters we've met and arranges them into a full life version of the painting. Fazio and Vern's outstanding contributions show how beauty can be made from chaos and how the creative process truly works when an artist creates a masterpiece by combining small pieces to form a larger whole.

While Vern's sullen, downtrodden looks and somewhat disheveled demeanor do well in portraying an obsessed, compassionate artist, Alanna Kalbfleisch's personable, passionate, and somewhat comical portrayal of Dot and Marie are almost a mirror to George in how she evokes a stunning lust for life that thrives on personal connection. Both Vern and Kalbfleisch have clear, soaring vocals that provide power and a deep emotional connection to their songs, eliciting plenty of heartbreak and joy. Kalbfleisch is absolutely stunning and full of fire as these two very different women: Dot, who wants her lover to leave his art and be with her, and Marie, who, while she believes family is important, realizes that her grandson's passion is in his art and urges him to find a way to connect to it. The two big duos these actors share, "We Do Not Belong Together" and "Move On," are deeply touching and moving yet also full of a searing hunger and desire based on Vern and Kalbfleisch's clear and well thought out portrayals.

Like the two leads, the supporting cast also play double parts set across the 100-year span of the two acts, with Christy Welty very moving as George's stubborn and demanding, yet full of love mother; Heather Fallon both strong and direct as her nurse and also dripping humor as a hilarious American tourist from the South; and Matthew R. Harris equally good as her husband. Peter Cunniff and Debra M. Qualtire are quite effective as the pompous and overly critical couple that George seeks approval from.

Creative elements are splendid, with the clean, crisp and somewhat simple, yet highly effective set design by Brett Aiken (with good video projections from Josiah Duka and Sarah Wickenhauser that magically bring Seurat's work to life in front of our eyes) and Jeff A. Davis' superb lighting providing non-stop memorable images on Aiken's mostly white set, playing off the words "color and light" that are mentioned numerous times in Sondheim's lyrics. Landis Maren York's excellent, opulent costumes also provide plenty of color, especially in act one. Steve Hilderbrand's superb music direction ensures that Sondheim's score, which features endless variations of similar staccato notes and rhythms reminiscent of Seurat's brushstrokes, achieves a rich delivery, both from the orchestra and the cast.

I was fortunate enough to see Sunday in the Park with George on Broadway with Mandy Patinkin in his Tony nominated portrayal of Seurat. Yet viewing the show now, when I have thirty more years of life experience and better understand the pull that the demands of one's work or creative side can have on personal relationships, makes me see it in a completely different way. While some people may find this show to be a musical they have a difficulty in connecting to, one thing is certain: The true beauty of the creative process, the power of connection, and the unlimited possibilities that a blank canvas has is fully and clearly on display in Theater Works' moving production of what I consider to be Sondheim and Lapine's masterpiece.

Sunday in the Park with George runs through March 5th, 2017, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at theaterworks.org or by calling 623-815-7930.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Phillip Fazio
Music Direction: Steve Hilderbrand
Set Designer: Brett Aiken
Costume Designer: Landis Maren York
Lighting Designer: Jeff A. Davis
Projection Designers: Josiah Duka, Sarah Wickenhauser
Sound Designer: Matthew Sanders
Hair and Make-Up Designer: DeAndrea Vaughn
Props Designer: Maggie Niven
Stage Manager: Andrea Small

Cast:
George: Joshua Vern
Dot/Marie: Alanna Kalbfleisch
Jules/Bob Greenberg: Peter Cunniff
Yvonne/Naomi Eisen: Debra M. Qualtire
Old Lady/Blair Daniels: Christy Welty
Nurse/Mrs./Harriet Pawling: Heather Fallon
Franz/Dennis: Gerald Thomson
Frieda/Betty: Marissa Cordova
Louis/Billy Webster: Kendrick Stallings
Celeste #1/Waitress: Kathlynn Rodin
Celeste #2/Elaine: Melody Startzell
Soldier/Alex: Matt Newhard
Boatman/Charles Redmond: Joseph Cavazos
Mr./Lee Randolph: Matthew R. Harris
Louise: Reagan Thompson


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